When my son Ben was young, he only ate white food. Spaghetti, bread and popcorn all made the cut; broccoli and peppers, not so much. I couldn’t let it go. I formed spinach into “Shrek pancakes,” told him Batman loved peas and challenged him to string bean eating contests. I knew he loved superheroes and any kind of competition, so I worked every angle I could.
That was long before I heard the term design thinking, a method of problem-solving that relies on empathy, observation and careful listening. Design thinkers don’t believe in one right solution, so they continuously generate and test ideas to meet individuals’ needs, explains Erin Cohn, a senior partner at Leadership + Design, a consulting company that works with schools.
The design thinking process helps educators relate to students’ experiences, but it may be an even more natural fit for parents. “I try to put on my designer hat with my toddler, to have ideas in my back pocket that motivate her to try something new,” says Colleen Murray, vice president of strategy at Jump Associates, an innovation firm in California. “You have to observe your child and know how to morph or evolve given the situation.”
Here are 10 strategies that design thinkers and innovators use to heighten children’s creativity and resourcefulness.
Run experiments and flip ideas. Brendan Boyle, a partner at IDEO and founder of its Toy Lab, tested ideas to get his son to ease up on cellphone use. At one point, he put the phone in a sealed envelope. “He could keep it, but he just couldn’t open it for a set amount of time,” Boyle says, adding that running experiments is more effective than setting tons of rules. “One of my favorites is to flip ideas,” he says. “For instance, you can’t do your homework until you’ve gone out and played for 45 minutes.”
Teach kids how to create. Part of parenting like a designer is teaching kids to create, and the earlier the better. “Keep lots of drawing supplies on hand,” Boyle says. “More importantly, give drawing instructions. If this isn’t something you can do, hire a local art student or teacher.” The most creative people he knows are not necessarily great artists, but they are comfortable doing back-of-the-napkin sketches. Another idea: Learn how to draw with them.
Throw out the parenting manuals. Designers tend to ignore set theories about what people want and focus instead on tinkering, Cohn says. She adds that there is no such thing as best parenting practices, because kids have different needs. “This is really liberating, because it frees you from the expectation to follow some externally-imposed parenting doctrine,” she explains. Instead, parents and kids can work together and try different approaches, then discuss what worked.
Step off the dance floor and onto the balcony. To come up with the right solutions, parents may have to create distance. Cohn says that when her daughter makes a mess, she often is too in the weeds to think strategically. “She’s rushing to get to school, and I may think I should help her clean up, but my own emotional involvement is clouding what she really needs, which is to learn responsibility.”
Embrace different ways of learning. Most designers were not top students, says Sarah Rottenberg, associate director of the Integrated Product Design program at the University of Pennsylvania. “We tended to be more of the artsy kids who couldn’t sit still in the classroom, and those are not the skills we prioritize in elementary or even most high schools.” Not every child is a linear thinker or traditional classroom learner, she explains. Rottenberg suggests that parents highlight the ways kids can use their strengths to make contributions in an increasingly complex world.
Solve problems flexibly. Rottenberg teaches her graduate students that people’s bizarre behavior makes perfect sense to themselves. For example, her 12-year-old twin boys are into the water-bottle-flipping craze. “It’s this super annoying, repetitive habit,” she says. “I don’t know whether it’s about social status and being the best water-flipper, or if they just want to move around.” She notes that she can make the choice to yell at them or just suggest they go outside. “Designers know it doesn’t have to be an either/or trade-off where only one person ends up happy.”
Let go of your own agenda. Factoring in kids’ point of view requires a mind shift. “If it’s 8 p.m. and I have a lot of work to do, I just want my daughter to brush her teeth, but she doesn’t have those needs,” Murray says. “How do I get in her mind to get her excited to take some action? I can will it all I want, but it will result in a tantrum.” On a good day, Murray says she can be joyful and creative about moving the needle. “Other times I’m more rigid, and that’s not the way to get human beings to change their mind,” she notes. When children feel understood, they are more likely to cooperate.
Walk kids through scenarios. If a child is having a conflict, such as a fight with a friend, parents can help them think through different approaches. “Ask, what is the outcome you want? How can you act when you go to school?” Murray says. She recommends presenting a variety of options. As kids consider both good and bad ideas, they can make predictions about what might happen.
Delight in what you don’t know. Designers like to adopt a beginner’s mind-set and stay open to possibilities, Cohn says. “Everything changes — both in our relationship with our kids and in the way we engage the world ourselves — as soon as we become learners alongside our kids rather than trying to be their teachers.” When children ask questions you can’t answer, make finding answers a joint project.
Establish rules as a family. Involve kids in the rule-generation process, Rottenberg says. “Number one it gets their buy-in, and number two they often have better ideas than we do,” she says. “We got our kids cellphones this year and had them brainstorm rules with us. They came up with no using the phones after school on weekdays, which was much stricter than we would have been.” Parents can then say, “It’s not my rule, it’s our rule.”
Ben is now 15 and eats vegetables without prodding, but every phase brings new challenges. A year ago, I started getting all of his texts on my iPad. It was a glitch and I came clean right away, expecting him to be freaked out. “It’s fine,” he told me calmly. “Whatever.”
I paused. The texts were popping up rapid-fire as I tried to work. I also was pretty sure his friends would not appreciate my reading them. I suggested he might want to fix the problem, but he insisted it was no big deal.
My son’s openness may run counter to common wisdom about teen boys, who tend to be portrayed as intensely private, but that’s the point. Design thinking is not about making generalizations; it’s about understanding the kid in front of you.
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